Since the beginning of 2019, the UK government has taken a number of worrying steps in the name of tackling terrorism and security that had created a hostile environment for civic rights activists and the media. This includes sentencing on terrorism-related charges of peaceful protesters blocking a flight undertaking mass deportation of migrants; and passing two bills that may have a serious implication on press freedom and freedom of expression. Meanwhile police has repeatedly delayed the much needed review on the policing of anti-fracking protests during which there have been often complaints of excessive police force against protesters.
Additionally, the arrest of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, in April 2019 has sparked condemnation by the UN and human rights groups fearing for his safety and well-being due to his possible extradition to the USA where he is sought for prosecution on charges relating to the publication of hundreds of thousands secret US files on the WikiLeaks website in 2010, that implicate US forces in human rights violations in Afghanistan and Iraq. (See more details in the relevant sections below)
While we await confirmation of their sentencing, it's great that apparently none of #Stansted15 will be jailed for standing up for human rights. Their case is emblematic of a trend across #Europe where acts of solidarity are increasingly criminalised. https://t.co/AelpztAV7P— Amnesty International (@amnesty) February 6, 2019
"Stansted 15" protesters against migrant deportation sentenced following disproportionate use of anti-terror legislation
On 6th February 2019, a court sentenced 15 activists (known as the #Stansted15) convicted of a terrorism-related offence for their peaceful protest to block a flight at Stansted airport with the aim to stop a mass migrant deportation in March 2017. The activists trespassed and chained themselves to an aeroplane due to deport 57 people to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. None of the Stansted 15 activists received prison time as the judge accepted they were motivated by “genuine reasons” however, three received suspended sentences and twelve were handed community service.
Emerging from court on the 6th February, the Stansted 15 said that:
“Justice will not be done until our convictions are overturned” and that terror laws should "never be misused in this way again".
While the non-custodial sentence was welcomed, serious concerns remain as the 15 activists, who stood through a 10-week long trial, were found guilty under draconian terror-related legislation, the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act on 10th December 2018, an offence carrying a potential sentence of life imprisonment. The conviction was defined as a ‘crushing blow for human rights’. The 15 activists launched an appeal against the conviction. In an article, recalling their bitter experience through the trial, one of the Stansted 15 raised concerns over bias on the part of the trial judge against them which they believed affected the conviction.
Lawyer Raj Chada who represent the 15 defendants said:
“While we are relieved that none of our clients face a custodial sentence, today is still a sad day for justice. Our clients prevented individuals being illegally removed from the UK and should never have been charged under counter terrorism legislation. We maintain that this was an abuse of power by the Attorney General and the CPS and will continue to fight in the appeal courts to get these wrongful convictions overturned.”
According to critics, the invoking of the anti-terror law in connection to a peaceful protest is unprecedented and disproportionate. In similar cases, those that had been charged were only convicted of ‘aggravated trespass’. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, the activists received widespread solidarity, questioning the legitimacy of the court decision. The verdict has been interpreted as an attempt to silence dissent and discourage future questioning of the government’s migration policy.
On 6 February, United Nations human rights experts also urged the UK not to use security and terrorism-related legislation to prosecute peaceful protesters and condemned the use of "disproportionate charges" against them, saying:
“We are concerned about the application of disproportional charges for what appears to be the exercise of the rights to peaceful and non-violent protest and freedom of expression. It appears that such charges were brought to deter others from taking similar peaceful direct action to defend human rights and in particular the protection of asylum seekers.”
Furthermore, at the end of February 2019, the Stansted 15 activists were summoned back to court to stand for another trial, this time on the charge of ‘aggravated trespass’ over the same incident they had been convicted for.
A spokeswoman for the protesters said: “This latest threat of prosecution is cruel and vindictive”.
The lawyer representing the Stansted 15, Raj Chada commented:
“At least HMCTS have retracted and apologised to our clients. It doesn’t take away from the misery that our clients suffered over the weekend. More importantly, it is a temporary reprieve as the CPS are still continuing the case and want it hanging over our clients like the sword of Damocles – this is not in the public interest.”
The Stansted 15 were also concerned that as the charges of ‘aggravated trespass’ have not been formally dropped, it might be used as threat against them for another trial.
The CPS had apologized but still holds the threat if and additional prosecution for Aggravated Trespass.— Netpol (@policemonitor) February 26, 2019
This prosecution will last 2 years if not 3. A shocking abuse of process which we condemn.
Clearly they are so worried about the #Stansted15 appeal succeeding. https://t.co/F7Zxe5XmX4
Broken promises and repeated delays by police to review disproportionate police response during anti-fracking protests
Since 2017, UK police chiefs have repeatedly delayed and missed numerous deadlines to complete an official review of policing of anti-fracking protests, following frequent complaints of excessive force by the police against peaceful protesters demonstrating against fracking firms. In January 2017, the National Police Chiefs’ Council agreed to review the guidance issued to police forces on handling anti-fracking protests. A new date has been set for the review to be finished by “summer 2019 at the earliest” and the police review has reportedly been expanded to examine “long-term protest generally” as well as the anti-fracking demonstrations.
In a further attempt by the anti-fracking movement to expose police violence and mistreatment against activists during anti-fracking demonstrations, campaigners from Lancashire, North Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire have set up a task force, on a web platform called Protest Justice. Local Complaints Coordinators will monitor and log incidents and will help campaigners make formal complaints about police violence at protests, with the support of the Network for Police Monitoring and Green and Black Cross, an independent grassroots project set up to support social and environmental struggles within the UK.
As all eyes are on the #Brexit debate today at Commons, the worrying #CounterTerrorism & Border Security Bill goes to 3rd reading at Lords. A number of problematic clauses threaten #pressfreedom & should be amended to include clear journalistic exemptions. https://t.co/wlSoLbSl4E— Rebecca Vincent (@rebecca_vincent) January 15, 2019
Press freedom threatened by new anti-terrorism and security legislation
On 12th February 2019, two problematic freedom of expression bills – the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill and the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill - were enacted, despite strong concerns by civil society, press freedom organisations and opposition parties. These groups argued that these two laws fall short of ensuring journalistic safeguards and may result in censorship and obstructing the investigative work of journalists.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet, denounced the new legislative moves by the UK Government saying it has “repeatedly demonstrated its contempt for journalism and disregard for press freedom” through laws which “undermine and compromise the ability of journalists to carry out their work with integrity and in safety”.
The Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, in a submission to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee, dated 17th July 2018, said that the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security bill "runs the risk of criminalising a broad range of legitimate behaviour, including reporting by journalists, civil society organisations or human rights activists as well as academic and other research activity”.
The NGO, Index on Censorship’s Head of Advocacy Joy Hyvarinen also commented:
"The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act crosses a line that takes the law very close to prohibiting opinions.”
In August 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor had reported that rights groups and the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism raised concerns about the implications of the bill for the protection of journalistic sources. In October 2018, nine organisations called on the House of Lords to amend the bill. Civil society found the amendments insufficient.
In September 2018, the Representative on Freedom of the Media, in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) also raised concerns regarding the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill saying that the definitions are too broad and that: "As it stands, the law could have an impact on the freedom of the media." and that "the provision has the potential to criminalise a too broad range of behaviour, and risks creating a chilling effect on journalistic freedom to report on the concerned organisation.” The OSCE further called for "strict and independent judicial oversight" of any new powers along with "adequate safeguards against their abuse.”
Extremely concerned by this attack on @OwenJones84, and reports of other attacks on journalists by #YellowVest protestors in London, which appear to be escalating as tensions heighten around the #Brexit parliamentary debate. @RSF_en is investigating. https://t.co/cXwp83RxCh— Rebecca Vincent (@rebecca_vincent) January 14, 2019
Journalists targeted and harassed by pro-Brexit protesters
Journalists in the UK are increasingly being targeted by pro-Brexit and far-right activist while covering protests. The trend is on the rise, according to Reporters without Borders UK’s Rebecca Vincent. For example, the Guardian newspaper columnist Owen Jones reported of being mobbed by pro-Brexit supporters during his speech at the People’s Assembly on 12th January 2019 and previously after doing an interview outside the Houses of Parliament in London on 7th January. In January 2019, there have been a number of additional reports of pro-Brexit protesters harassing journalists reporting from Westminster as well as politicians when giving interviews, as debates over Brexit heated up.
By expelling #Assange from the Embassy, #Ecuador allowed #GB to arrest him, taking him 1 step closer to extradition to the #US, thus exposing him to risks of serious #humanrightsviolations. #GB has arbitrary detained Mr Assange possibly endangering his life for the last 7 years— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) April 11, 2019
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange arrest and possible extradition to the US raise concerns over setting up a "dangerous precedent" threatening journalist freedom
In April 2019, the UK police arrested Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Assange had taken refuge since 2012. The arrest was made following decision by the Ecuadorian Government to revoke his political asylum. Assange was granted asylum to protect him from extradition to Sweden by the UK authorities where he faced charges, that were dropped and recently reopened, of sexual assault. This would have carried the risk of extradition to the US where he would have faced possible human rights violations. Just after his arrest in the UK, the US charged Assange with conspiring to hack into a secret Pentagon computer network, related to the leak of a vast number of US Government secret documents that were published on his Wikileaks website. The leaked secret documents include hundreds of thousands of material related to US war in Afghanistan and Iraq and documents from Guantánamo Bay detainee assessments, as well as US diplomatic cables - some of which reveal possible evidence of human rights violations. On 2nd May, the US started a procedure for Assange's extradition to the US. The US charges carries up to a maximum five-year prison sentence, but there at concerns that more serious charges could be added later on.
Currently, Assange has been jailed by the UK for 50 weeks since 1st May 2019 for breaking bail imposed seven years earlier by seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. UN experts have called for Julian Assange to be released from prison and criticised the British government for breaching his human rights.
The UN working group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) condemned the detention of Assange at Belmarsh prison, a high-security prison, calling the sentence imposed on Assange “disproportionate" and that his detention is a "further arbitrary deprivation of liberty". The WGAD further said that "this treatment appears to contravene the principles of necessity and proportionality envisaged by the human rights standards." Previously, in its 4th December 2015 Opinion, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, considered that Assange was arbitrarily detained by the Governments of Sweden and the UK and demanded his release, a demand also reiterated by the WGAD in December 2018.
In a statement on 5th April, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, said that if extradited to the US, Mr. Assange could be exposed to “a real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial, and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Additionally, Amnesty International called on the UK "not to extradite or send in any other manner Assange to the USA", reiterating concerns over facing possible "torture and other ill-treatment and an unfair trial followed by possible execution, due to his work with Wikileaks". Regarding the allegations of rape and other sexual violence against Julian Assange, Amnesty International called on the UKto "properly investigate in a way that respects the rights of both the complainants and the accused and be brought to justice if there is sufficient evidence against him".
For supporters of Assange, the case is emblematic of the restriction to media freedoms, with Assange's lawyer Jennifer Robinson insisting that the case "set a "dangerous precedent" where any journalist could face US charges for "publishing truthful information about the United States".
The United Kingdom is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as enshrined in domestic law, which guarantees the right to freedom of association.
The United Kingdom is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as enshrined in domestic law, which guarantees the right to freedom of association. Whilst civil society organisations, NGOs, and other types of associations are generally free to operate without hindrance or state interference, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, along with other NGOs, have voiced recent concern about an incremental and subtle erosion of the UK government’s respect for civic freedoms. Specific concerns focus on the government’s counterterrorism strategies involving broad definitions of extremism, which may include legitimate associations and activities. The UN Special Rapporteur voiced particular concern at the broad definition that the state uses for “domestic extremism”, and the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, nominally aimed at countering ‘non-violent’ extremism. Following a 2016 official visit to the UK, the UN Special Rapporteur decried ‘Prevent’ as resulting in “crude racial, ideological, cultural and religious profiling, with consequent effects on the right to freedom of association of some groups”.
The right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed under domestic, regional, and international human rights standards.
The right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed under domestic, regional, and international human rights standards. Public demonstrations are a routine part of public life. Police forces in the UK periodically employ violent tactics against protestors, including containment or ‘kettling’ tactics which may undermine the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. There is an ongoing public enquiry into the use of undercover policing tactics to infiltrate and exert control over assemblies and protest movements, which the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has described as “not justifiable”.
Freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, is guaranteed and protected under domestic laws, and regional and international human rights standards.
Freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, is guaranteed and protected under domestic laws, and regional and international human rights standards. A planned Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill (currently receiving legislative scrutiny for its human rights implications) has the potential to make it harder for 'people of all faiths and ideologies to express their beliefs and opinions’, undermining the right to freedom of expression.